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Managing Academic Referees (1/3)

Updated: Jun 7

Intro: This series of posts, from the Open Dreams Graduate Mentorship WhatsApp Group, was inspired by the recurrent challenges of getting reference letters from some university lecturers. Go to this link for the second post and to this link for the third post

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The biggest issue I have faced mentoring several graduate students has been with a mentality deeply encrusted in the DNA of many. Plausibly, a reflection of a much wider African myth that people in position of power or responsibility are always right or should be respected. In my opinion securing the Principal's or HoD’s recommendation doesn’t necessarily offer any added advantage than obtaining one from a lecturer or course instructor. I advise my protégés to seek recommenders who know them either within some professional or academic capacity and can say a lot about their ability and achievements. In fact, many students go through university without being known by the Principal (Vice Chancellor, Rector). As a result, sometimes, such recommendations could even raise red flags. The Commonwealth Scholarships, Schwarzmann and Knight Hennessy Scholars programs are clear on the fact that the post of the recommenders are in no way important. I understand this is hard to digest for many Cameroonians who have grown up within a system which tends to offer more value to work because of the author’s position in society even when it shows clear signs of intellectual insufficiency, coherence and substance, to the discredit of logic, and unequivocal evidence. That said, I’d wish to immediately make it clear that securing a Vice Chancellor’s recommendation which is written to you and not generic is definitely a good catch. However, one from a lecturer will serve exactly the same goal.

Below are my main tips on approaching this issue:

1. Select recommenders who have known you for a considerable length of time, ideally greater than two years and have directly supervised or worked with you.

2. Most programs will require recommender to log on to an online portal, so think of those who are tech savvy.

3. Choose amongst those who are well informed about your work, your achievement, ambitions and really want to see you succeed moving forward.

4. If you have multiple recommenders, do not shy away from telling them what aspect about you they should focus on. In one program, I had 3 recommenders. While my mentor focused on my personal life, leadership, academics and ambitions, another who knew me within the community focused on my volunteering and giving-back in my community. The last person who was a peer recommender was years ahead of me in university and could narrow in on my academics, leadership and ambitions some years back.

I trusted these recommenders whom I believe corroborated my story, my vision and the plans I had expressed in my statement of purpose and my essays. I strongly believe that every part of your scholarship application is a long story and all parts need to fit in like a puzzle to provide a holistic image about the candidate. It is trying to present your past, and future ambitions to someone whom you’ve never met in only a few thousand words of essays and letters. I want you to see your referees as those who complete and shed more light in a bid to extend, give more context and possibly substance to your few hundred word essays. Generic recommendation letters only show lack of knowledge about you and don’t fill the gaps left after your essays and I can categorically say, they’d take you nowhere. Choose your recommenders WISELY!

- Edwin Mikah, Co-ordinator, Open Dreams Graduate Mentorship Program.

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You mustn’t stick to some specific referees if they are not advancing your course.

With most of the scholarship schemes, you are informed if the referees have submitted letters of reference for you or not and you have the possibility of changing them in the system. So, why take chances?

You know in our context, when you contact a senior lecturer to recommend you, you may be asked to write the reference letter yourself - a practice which is strongly discouraged. Oftentimes, the senior lecturer may lack the necessary exposure and know-how to write a good letter of reference for you and may think you should be contented with the generic recommendations issued by the student office. Some lecturers simply lack the necessary ICT skills to navigate the reference platform. All these inadequacies plus some dose of laziness, are coined in the phrase, “I’m very busy”.

My advice to aspiring scholars is: change your referees if they are not advancing your course. You may be looking too far. Your application will never be given credence anywhere because of the "seniority" of your referee. Stop looking for VIPs, who can’t produce unique reference letters for you. Generic letters won’t take you anywhere. Look for people who know you and can tell a personal and unique story about you – this is the purpose a reference letter serves.

- Anestine Chi, English Language Program Facilitator, Open Dreams



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